Ukranian Tragedy - The Bigger Question
Lt Gen (Dr) V K Saxena (Retd), PVSM, AVSM, VSM
Far Beyond ‘Just a Human Error’

This article argues that that the downing of the Ukrainian civil airliner by an Iranian missile on 08 Jan 2020 that took 176 innocent lives1 is an incident that goes far beyond than ‘just a human error’; a misjudgement etc. It is a fratricide2, a word which the dictionary defines as an ‘act of killing one’s own brother, sister or relatives or in a civil war, killing fellow countrymen’.

Adapted to battle field, fratricidal fire is an attack by a military force on friendly or neutral forces. In aviation parlance or in aerial combat situations, fratricide will imply shooting down one’s own/friendly (neutral) aircraft (aerial vehicle).

In the context of the current incident, the article examines various points related to this fratricide and poses a bigger question; what are the chances of a similar incident happening in the Indian skies?

The Event

Keeping clear of the media hype and public sentiment of rage and protests, recounting of the basic facts of the case are essential to drive the argument. It is now media-beaten fact that on 08 Jan 2020, Iranian military shot down a Ukrainian civil airliner Boeing 737-800 headed for Kyiv killing on board all the 176 passengers and the crew.

The events leading up to this ghastly tragedy were actually set in motion on 03 Jan 2020 when United States (US) carried out a drone strike near Baghdad International Airport that targeted and killed Major General Qasem Soleimani. The General was the Commander of the Quds Force. This force, constituted as a division in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRIGC) of Iran has the responsibility to conduct extraterritorial military and clandestine operations. The US considers Quds Force as a terrorist organisation.

Gen Soleimani was a popular hero amongst many an Iranian people who perceived him as a commander that led the elite Quds force that helped defeat the ISIS armed groups in Syria and Baghdad3. Iranians came out in hundreds and thousands to mourn the death of their popular hero. Such vast was the sea of mourners that more than 50 people were crushed to death in the burial procession itself4. Ayatollah Khamenei the Supreme Leader of Iran declared that ‘harsh retaliation’ is waiting for the US, post killing of General Soleimani, who he said, had become the ‘international face of resistance’ (against forces inimical to the nation). 5

Living its threat of retaliation, the IRIGC carried out a missile attack on the US airbases in Western Iraq shortly after midnight of 07/08 Jan 2020. The Operation was aptly named Operation Martyr Soleimani and the bases targeted were Ayn al-Asad in western Iraq and Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan6. Both these bases housed US troops.

The purpose of covering the above chronology was to bring to focus the state of things hours prior to the Ukrainian tragedy. Following points may be noted

  1. There was a general state of unrest and turmoil in country.
  2. The ghastly killing of a popular hero followed by a stern warning of harsh retaliation had brought both the countries to a brink of war.
  3. Iran’s military in all probability would have been expecting a sharp counter response from the US (missile attack or airstrike) after it struck two of the air bases in Iraq housing US troops.

It was against this background that the following sequence should be seen:- 7,8

  1. Iran had launched the missiles on the Iraqi air bases past midnight on the night 7/8 Jan 2020.
  2. Ukranian jetliner Boeing 737-800 bound for Kyiv took off from Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport at 6:12 AM.
  3. It had climbed to an altitude of 8100 feet following its pre-approved flight profile and routing, as is the norm. The plane was being painted on the primary as well as, the secondary surveillance radars of the Air Traffic Control (ATC) as for any regular flight.
  4. Three minutes into take off (6:15 AM) the plane disappeared from the Secondary Surveillance Radar (SSR) and at 6:18 AM from the Primary Surveillance Radar (PSR) of the ATC. While the PSR displays the reflected radio signals from the aircraft, the SSR listens for the messages from the aircraft’s transponder9.
  5. A video shows two distinct missiles launched in a gap of 30 seconds which hit the aircraft. These missiles were Tor-M1 short range Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs). Tor- M1 ( NATO Reporting Name SA-9 Gauntlet) is a Russian Short Range Air Defence Self Propelled System mounted on a tracked chassis carrying the radar controlled Short range missiles covering a range bracket from 1500-2000m to 12 km. The reaction time for target detection to target engagement for Tor- M1 is 5-8 seconds from a deployed condition and about 10 seconds + from a cold start.

  7. The aircraft on being hit reportedly moved past a residential area hitting the ground at a public park. It was reduced to pieces as it tore past a football ground, some farm land and gardens.
Norms of Identification

Leaving this trail events at this point, the norms of identification and recognition of friendly aircrafts from those of the adversary’s and various other issues related to the same, are briefly enumerated.

The first thing to be comprehended in this context is the Air Defence Identification Zone or ADIZ for short.

As air travel came into being as a mode of regular transportation, efforts were made internationally to form laws and treaties which will regulate this phenomenon. One of the first and probably the most important treaty in this regard is the 1944 Chicago Convention on International Civil aviation. This treaty provides the basic framework for regulation of international air traffic. It has 190 signatory countries. The Treaty also established The International Civil Aviation Organisation or ICAO which is an apex body working under the aegis of the United Nations and acting as an international watchdog dedicated to ensuring safe conduct of international civil aviation10.

The above treaty allows a signatory party to restrict or prohibit in a uniform manner, other States undertaking flights over certain areas of its territory either for reasons of military necessity or public safety. The treaty also stipulates that the countries may designate the areas they wish to be excluded but such areas must be of a reasonable extent and must not unnecessarily interfere with normal flow of air aviation traffic11.

Flowing from this provision many countries have established the Air Defence Identification Zones (ADIZs) though the treaty as such, makes no specific mention of the term ADIZ per se.

ADIZ is a volume of air space promulgated by a country in which it is obligatory for a civil or a military plane to report its flight plan and to respond to the query (ies) aimed at establishing its identity. ADIZ not only covers the airspace over the land area of the country but may also extend a little beyond into the open sea since the threats/intruders need to be queried and identified before they enter the airspace of the country. It however, in no manner extends the country’s sovereignty into the open sea. The purpose of ADIZ is basically to monitor the airspace of a country for any types of security threats.

The Convention on International Civil Aviation at Annex15 gives out the definition of ADIZ as special designated airspace of defined dimensions within which aircraft are required to comply with special identification and/or reporting procedures. Such procedures may be in addition to the procedures and protocols that lie in the domain of Air Traffic Services.

Initially the Chicago Convention provided for ‘freedom of action’ for the States to respond (as deemed appropriate) to cases of national emergency or during war. However, in order to specifically ensure the safety of civil aviation, the Convention was amended to include a provision that specifically prohibits the use weapons against civil aircraft.

So much for the ADIZ

Identification of Aircrafts in ADIZ

In military parlance procedure of identification of aircrafts entering a country’s ADIZ is called Identification Friend or Foe or IFF for short.

In its simplest form, the IFF is based on an interrogator-transponder chain of equipment. In this, if an early warning sensor of the defender tasked to carry our surveillance of its airspace for detection of air threat detects an unknown aircraft the air defence system sends out an interrogation message the same is received by the transponder on board the platform under interrogation and replied back to establish one’s identity.

There are a large number of complexities and challenges associated with the IFF. For instance, the Interrogator Transponder duo has to be a compatible pair. There is a very serious threat of a techno-savvy opponent spoofing the Transponder signal leading the defender to designate an adversary’s aircraft as friendly. Securing the IFF systems is therefore a big challenge. Huge sums of time and resources are invested in this. For instance in Jul 2017, the US Air Force awarded a $42.8 million contract to M/s Raytheon to provide a secure IFF system.12 Back home as well, a lot of indigenous work is going on in securing country’s IFF. This is not covered being classified. Robust and secure IFF is inevitable in the present times of supersonic aerial combat where visual recognition is simply timed out (though very important).

The IFF exercise goes well beyond exchange of mere interrogator transponder (though that is the backbone). All other resources are pressed in to establish a positive identity of the intruder. These may include own flight plan correlation, checking out known friendlies in the areas, known/reported stragglers treading homeward after aerial combat, visual co-relation ( if applicable and feasible). The air picture initially generated by the defender’s sensors is referred to as Air Situation Picture or ASP. This picture after the IFF action is called the Recognised Air Situation Picture or RASP.

Embedding of IFF in the Air Defence Scenario

No air defence weapons fire arbitrarily, on their own volition or without authorisation. Air defence battle is a very complex, fully knitted and fast flowing. It is controlled by what is called the Air Defence Control and Reporting System or ADCRS for short.

This system is responsible for generation of ASP and RASP, designation of selected targets to air defence weapons so as to inflict successive and seamless fire on the intruding air threat and minute-to-minute control of the air defence engagement up to the end game.

ADCRS controls air defence weapons at land, sea and air seamlessly. The integrated family of weapons along with ADCRS constitute the Integrated Air Defence System or IADS. Air Defences, world over, are knitted to various degrees of automation and sophistication into IADCSs protecting the vulnerabilities (called Vulnerable Areas / Vulnerable Points or VAs/VPs) in their respective countries.
While the ADCRS is designed to follow the full chain of detection, identification, target designation and fire control, at certain times when the hostilities are eminent or are in progress, or is special situations where there is no time and space for interception of intruders by own aircrafts when they are ingressing into our area, certain volumes of air space is prohibited to own and friendly aircrafts ( for a time slot), allowing the defenders to quickly engage intruding threats with ground based air defence systems positively recognised by them as ‘hostile’.

The term hostile has a special significance in air defence parlance. It refers to an air threat vehicle undertaking a ‘hostile act’. These could mean any one or more of the following action(s):-

  1. Not responding to interrogation
  2. Diving at the VA/VP in an offensive manner.
  3. Flying dangerously close or at extreme low level with respect to a VA/VP.
  4. Carrying out aerial reconnaissance and/or photography in sensitive, restricted/prohibited areas.
  5. Firing weapons of any sort.
Visiting the Iranian Launch Event.

It is now possible to place the Iranian incident in the light of what is stated above

  1. The Iranian air defence unit which fired the ToR-M1 SAM at the civil liner would have been a part of some IADS.
  2. The unit would have been knitted in an ADCRS chain responsible for the conduct of actions related to the air defence battle (detection, identification, designation, fire).
  3. Based on the tensions prevailing at that point in time (night of 7/8 Jan 2020), in all probability, the restriction on the fire of air defence weapons would have been partly or totally lifted.
  4. While the restrictions may have been lifted, still the bottom line of delivering fire, if and only if, the target is positively recognised as hostile cannot be lifted and would not have been lifted.
  5. The movement of the civil airliner (complete with its identity, flight profile, routing, altitude, timing and more) taking off from the National Air Space (NAS) of Iran on a scheduled flight has to be well known by the entire system, ATC, and the ADCRS chain. No IFF was actually required here.
  6. Also, the flight originating from the NAS (from the capital city?) requires no play of ADIZ etc.
  7. The flight was airborne at 6:12, the first missile was fired at 6:15. The Tor-M1 air defence system ,even if it is in a state of high operational readiness (equipment switched on fully, surveillance in progress) will still take a finite (minute or so) to lock on the target , power the missile and launch. If this time is subtracted from 6 :15 AM, it will leave just around two minutes or thereabout for the entire exercise of establishing the identity of the aircraft before the launch sequence.
  8. If the unit referred to the ATC, its own ADCRS chain or followed any of the laid down rules of delivering fire, it would have come to know in a matter of split second that the locked target on the ToR-M1 missile guidance radar is a civil airliner on a scheduled flight.
  9. There is absolutely no chance to deliver fire if an iota of any norm was followed.
The Tragedy

Then how come the tragedy happened?

Here is a plausible scenario:-

  1. It is night of 7/8 Jan 2020.
  2. Just hours before midnight Iran’s military has launched missiles on two US air bases in Iraq.
  3. The air defenders now on full alert are now expecting a US retaliation by airstrikes and missile launches.
  4. The early warning sensor in the Tor-M1 missile systems sees an aerial vehicle steadily climbing to a certain altitude.
  5. Without establishing identity through any of the options available (ADCRS, ATC, Flight Plan schedules, IFF etc.), the sensor operator LEADS HIMSELF/HERSELF INTO A FIRM BELEF THAT THE US HAS MOUNTED THE EXPECTED RETALIATION BY WAY OF A CRUISE MISSILE.
  6. Without any further confirmation/corroboration/co-relation /seeking authorisation etc. the target is cleared for engagement. The Fire control Radar of the Tor-M1 locks on the target, the missile is powered and is launched.
  7. The slow moving civil airliner is a sitting duck for Tor M1 armed with a sure kill missile 9M330 flying at a deadly 2.8 Mach.


  9. The first missile hits the aircraft. The transponder system is knocked off the aircraft goes off the Secondary Surveillance Radar (SSR), the primary surveillance radar continues to get reflected echoes from the wrecked aircraft for another 2-3 minutes before it loses the aircraft at 6:18 AM as the aircraft now plunges to its death.
  10. There is simply no question of the TorM1 crew commander to have made any efforts to establish the identity of the aircraft as this was a NO MISS case as the scheduled flight was being painted both on the SSR as well as the PSR.
  11. It was a trigger happy unit commander/ sensor operator/missile crew who, blinded by their belief of US retaliation , let go a deadly missile at a civil airliner without giving the latter, half a chance to respond on IFF channel or checking back anything from ATC/ADCRS chain and more.
  12. The face saving plea that the airliner sharply turned towards a sensitive site does not hold water. Why?
    1. Civil airliners of the size of 737-880 are comparatively slow moving aircrafts as compared to their combat brethren. Both are very well differentiable to trained radar operator/ missile crew (the top speed of Boeing 737-800 is 583 miles per hour whereas an F- 16 can fly at 915 miles per hour. The two are unmistakable as chalk and cheese).
    2. The civil liner on the scheduled flight and allotted flight path and within three minutes of its take-off was still climbing. It only managed to reach 8100 feet before being hit. The aircraft has a maximum cruising altitude of 41000 ft.
    3. There is no way that airliner of the size of 737-800 within minutes of take-off and still in a climbing profile can make a sudden sharp turn towards a sensitive site. In fact, it never deviated from its allotted flight routing otherwise the ATC would have cut in. What intention it had to take that turn? This was not a 9/11 aircraft.
  13. Surely it was the GRAVEST OF HUMAN ERROR WHICH COST 176 INNOCENT HUMAN LIVES. A bit of credence also goes to the Iranian official statement that the tragedy was fuelled (read abetted) by ‘US ADVENTURISM’.

So much for the Ukrainian tragedy

The Bigger question

The bigger question is - What is the guarantee that such a case will not happen in Indian skies? This question cannot be answered in a quantified yes or no terms; it can only be assessed in terms of probabilities and chances. Following facts on ground will help to make an informed guess:-

  1. Each of the three Services hold air defence weapons which are best suited for operations in their respective battle spaces on land, sea and air providing air defence protection to their service-specific assets.
  2. As a Service responsible for the Air defence of the national air space, the Air Force has provided the spine of the ADCRS in the form of an Integrated Air Command and Control System (IACCS).
  3. The IACCS provides for the ADCRS link right from the highest level of air defence control right down to the lower control nodes for air defence.
  4. Into the IACCS of the Air Force are integrated the ADCRS system of the Army (Akshteer) and the Navy (Trigun). This integration is currently a work in progress.
  5. In simplest terms, if the ADCRS works optimally and exercises due control, caution and authorisation across the air defence networks of the three Services, the air defence weapons will not be allowed to fire on their own volition or judgement. This will cut down the chances of fratricide to nil/minimal.
  6. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true since a rogue (loose kite) missile cannot distinguish between a friend or foe and the strength of the entire ADCRS chain will lie in its weakest link.
  7. One trigger happy operator/crew can cause unimaginable and catastrophic damage. Air defence weapons are deadly killers; civil liners are sitting ducks. THERE CAN BE NO CRIME WORSE THAN A FRACTRICIDE (media has rightly called this incident as READ MURDER IN THE AIR)
  8. It is to be hoped that an optimal ADCRS scenario is and will prevail in the Indian skies and no fratricides will ever happen.
  9. That said, the prime need for total and seamless integration of ADCRDS systems of the three Services into one cohesive, responsive, fail proof and redundant system cannot be over emphasised.

The answer to the poser is now with the reader.

  1. “Iran admits to downing Ukrainian Plane,” at Accessed on 19 Jan 2020.
  2. “Fratricide,” at Accessed on 19 Jan 2020.
  3. Esmail Qaani:New ‘Shaadow Commander’ of Iran’s Quds Force ,”at Accessed on 20 Jan 2020.
  4. Iran: dozens dead in crush at Soleimani’s burial procession, “at Accessed on 20 Jan 2020.
  5. “Iran supreme leader vows ‘severe revenge’ after US kills top General Soleimani,”at Accessed on 20 Jan 2020.
  6. Iran launches missiles at Iraq air bases hosting US and coalition Troops, “at www.
  7. “Iran says Ukrainian Jet was downed by two short range missiles, “at Accessed on 21 Jan 2020.
  8. Ukrainian Airliner was hit by a second missile over Iran, Video shows,” at Accessed on 21 Jan 2020.
  9. Secondary Surveillance Radar,” at,” Accessed on 21 Jan 2020.
  10. “Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in International Law Perspective,” at www. Accessed on 21 Jan 2020.
  11. ibid
  12. “Friend or Foe: Securing Aircraft IFF systems, “at . Accessed on 22 Jan 2020.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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